John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute (1713-1792)

Bute, Lord

The main influence on the education and early reign of George III, John Stuart, Earl of Bute, was briefly prime minister in the 1760s and quickly became one of the most vilified men in the British world. Burned in effigy (often represented by a jackboot) from London to Virginia, the Scottish Lord Bute was a powerful symbol of pervasive fears that hidden forces behind the throne were bent on corrupting the British constitution.

Bute was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on May 25, 1713, the oldest son of James, 2nd Earl of Bute, and Lady Anne Campbell, the daughter of the 1st Duke of Argyll. He was educated at Eton College and the University of Leiden. In 1737 Bute was elected one of the 16 Scottish representative peers in the House of Lords, but he rarely attended its sessions. He left Scotland for London in 1745 shortly after the outbreak of the Jacobite rebellion. There he became close to Frederick, the Prince of Wales, who was at the center of the political opposition to George II (Frederick's father). After Frederick's death in 1751, Bute became principal tutor to his oldest son, who would become George III.

It would be difficult to overstate Bute's influence on George III. Bute designed the curriculum that shaped the future king's thoughts on history, law, and politics, relying heavily on works such as a manuscript version of William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England (not published until 1765) and Henry St. John Bolingbroke's The Idea of the Patriot King (1740). Bolingbroke's idealistic and highly flawed work largely ignores the practical challenges posed by the British constitution and its recent history, but it framed George III's perspective on his broader role as king. Bolingbroke stressed that a king's decisions should be guided by the interests of the nation, without regard to the politics of the day, and a king should choose ministers for their moral virtue rather than more mundane characteristics such as their ability to maintain a majority in the House of Commons. Bute's education plan for the future king led to an unsuccessful attempt in 1752 by Horace Walpole and other Whig leaders to have him removed from the position.

Walpole's fears proved well-founded when George III became king on October 25, 1760, and enacted ideas which resulted in an almost complete transformation — and destabilization — of British politics. It took only two days for George III to appoint Bute to the Privy Council; five months later Bute was named Secretary of State for the Northern Department. His rapid elevation caused confusion in the Cabinet, especially among William Pitt and his ministerial colleagues, who were focused on vigorously prosecuting the Seven Years War against France. The growing divide between Pitt and Bute reached a crisis point over strategy against Spain and over the terms of peace with France (the King and Bute wanted a quick end to the conflict, rather than a comprehensive one). Pitt consequently lost his hold over the Cabinet and resigned his office on October 5, 1761. Pitt's successor, the Duke of Newcastle, followed suit on May 26, 1762, over a dispute with the King and the isolationist Bute about whether to continue a subsidy to Prussia. The very next day, the King seized this opportunity and appointed Bute as First Lord of the Treasury and prime minister. Bute's 317 days at the head of the government would be among the most tumultuous of the century and lay much of the groundwork for the constitutional disputes which culminated in the American War for Independence.

Bute was immediately blasted by the London press as a conniving Scot and a Jacobite-leaning Tory who cared nothing for protecting the British constitution and its hard-won victories in the costly war. The Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years War was largely Bute's handiwork — and however skillfully negotiated and advantageous it was to Britain in hindsight, at the time it was derided by leaders such as Pitt and quickly turned into a political disaster for Bute. With the enormously popular Pitt now in opposition, the treaty became rich fodder for political writers such as John Wilkes. Wilkes' North Briton was launched specifically to attack Bute and the peace, and its writings helped establish the theme of constitutional corruption that fueled the political fears of radical Whigs in America and Britain. By the spring of 1763, Bute was the most hated man on both sides of the Atlantic and was attacked — often physically — almost everywhere he went. His decision to impose a cider tax in England led to widespread rioting. He also wanted to tax Americans to raise further revenue to pay for a permanent British army presence in the colonies (the Sugar Act and Stamp Act were eventually put forward by Bute's protégé and successor as Prime Minister, George Grenville).

Recognizing that his continuation in office would only make matters worse for the government, Bute resigned on April 8, 1763, and claimed to withdraw from political life. Rumors soon circulated that he remained George III's chief advisor, perhaps more influential out of office than he was in it. Considerable damage was done to British political culture when the rumors turned out to be true. Grenville demanded Bute's removal from the King's court, and the situation sparked rampant speculation that ministerial policies were the product of an unconstitutional conspiracy surrounding the throne. Pitt's return to office in 1766 effectively ended Bute's relationship with the King, although the myth that the constitution was being actively undermined by secret forces would taint transatlantic politics throughout the American Revolution, and Bute would remain a symbol of that corruption in satirical prints through the 1780s.

Except for a trip to Italy, Bute spent his long retirement from public life at his estate in Hampshire and used his considerable wealth to support Scotland's universities, including several endowed chairs at the University of Edinburgh. He also wrote a number of works on botany. One of his sons, Charles Stuart, fought for Britain in the American War for Independence from 1775 to 1779, eventually commanding the 26th Regiment of Foot. Bute died in London on March 10, 1792, and is buried in Rothesay on the Isle of Bute.

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